Marcus Aurelius (121-180 AD)

A Roman emperor and philosopher of the Stoic school


Visions of self-transformation are found throughout the history of Western thought. One might find it surprising that the same basic message can be found in all historical periods: That normally we live our everyday life in a superficial, partial, or even distorted way; but that it is possible to overcome this condition, by transforming our attitude to life, connecting to our dormant inner resources, and thus coming to live fully and deeply.

     So far we have seen two versions of this vision in the writings of two 20th century thinkers: Karl Jaspers and Henri Bergson. Let us now go back 18 centuries, to the ancient Roman world, to the Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius. The Stoics were an influential school of thought who flourished for centuries in ancient Greece and Rome, and who sought to help individuals live a life of reason, inner freedom, justice, and inner tranquility.

     Marcus Aurelius wrote his book Meditations (often in military camps during military campaigns) as a personal notebook of philosophical exercises. Writing was his way of awakening the true self in him – the “daemon,” or guiding principle – which can follow the voice of reason and attain freedom and peace.

     Let us reflect on some of Marcus’ passages. Remember that Marcus is writing here to himself, reminding himself how to think and behave.


(The text is slightly edited for ease of reading. For the full text see Meditations, translated by George Long, Prometheus Books, NY 1991)


Meditations, book II, 1

Begin the morning by saying to yourself: Today I shall meet with somebody who is a busybody, and somebody who is ungrateful, and arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial. All these things happen to these people because they are ignorant of what is good and evil. But I have seen the nature of the good that it is beautiful, and the bad that it is ugly, and the nature of the person who does wrong. I have seen that all this is part of the same intelligence and the same perfection [of the cosmos]. I cannot be injured by any of them, because no one can fix on me what is ugly, nor can I be angry with my fellow man, nor hate him… To act against one another is against nature.


Meditations, Book II, 5

Every moment do what you have to do with perfect and simple dignity, and feeling of affection, and freedom, and justice, and give yourself relief from all other thoughts. And you will give yourself this relief, if you do every act as if it was the last thing you do in life, without carelessness and without emotional aversion from the commands of reason, and without hypocrisy, and self-love, and discontent with the portion which has been given to you in life.

     See how few are the things that are needed to live a life that flows quietly, and is like the existence of the gods.


Meditations, Book II, 19

What can guide a man? One and only one thing—philosophy. But this consists in keeping the daemon within the person [the inner guiding principle in the person] free from violence and unharmed, superior to pains and pleasures, doing nothing without a purpose, and nothing falsely and with hypocrisy


Meditations, Book VIII, 47

If you are pained by some external thing, it is not this that disturbs you, but your own judgment about it. And it is in your power to wipe out this judgment now… And if you are pained because you are not doing some particular thing that seems to you right, why don’t you act rather than complain? But is some insurmountable obstacle in the way? Then don’t grieve, because it doesn’t depend on you.

     It is not worthwhile to live if this cannot be done. Take your departure from life with content, and be also pleased with the things that are obstacles.{jcomments on}